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Diversity making a difference: Michael Teng dedicates his career to advancing medical research

Having spent over 25 years researching viruses, Associate Dean of the College of Medicine’s Internal Medicine department Michael Teng’s expertise stood as a useful resource for navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. FACEBOOK/USF HEALTH-UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA

This story is part of a continuing series that features leaders at USF during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Growing up with a physicist father, Associate Dean of the College of Medicine’s Internal Medicine department Michael Teng’s childhood was filled with passionate discussions of science.

Having the opportunity to talk to his father about his career is something Teng considers to be foundational to his success in virology. However, one of his fondest memories was the result of a series of struggles he and his father experienced when completing an elementary school project.

“I remember one time in elementary school, we had to make a catapult. My dad had a little shop downstairs in the basement and we built this thing out of wood and we made it look nice, but it didn’t work very well,” Teng said.

“He looked at me and said ‘well, we can fix this’ and so he went on and showed me how to fix it. We ended up with a catapult that didn’t look very pretty but was really good at shooting little models, and we had a lot of fun with that.”

Teng and his parents were the first Asian family to move to his small, suburban neighborhood in Chicago during the ‘70s, he said. Despite the efforts his family made to establish a sense of community with their neighbors, the racism they experienced was something he explained shaped his understanding of discrimination and intolerance.

“It’s important to remember where I came from because my parents are immigrants and at the time I was growing up, there weren’t very many of us around,” he said. “When I was growing up, predominantly white doesn’t even begin to describe it … [and] it wasn’t just microaggressions, it was outright racism.”

A group of Chinese students moving to the area to attend college during Teng’s childhood sparked motivation between his family and local Chinese communities to organize a support group for children. They were provided with various activities, such as summer camps and Chinese school sessions on Sundays to learn more about their heritage, according to Teng.

His experience in overcoming adversity set a foundation for Teng’s eventual pursuit of a career in medicine. With the help of the support group, a high GPA and exceptional standardized test-taking skills, Teng was able to go on to pursue his undergraduate degree in life sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1988 and, following shortly after, his doctoral degree in immunology at the University of Chicago in 1993.

Teng recalls his father evading administrative promotion to focus on science primarily, so he speculated he would do the same. He later found that he enjoyed working with students and the combination of instruction and research.

In his current position, Teng facilitates degree progression of graduate and postdoctoral students enrolled at the Morsani College of Medicine. Although virological research remains his primary focus, he said the opportunities an administrative position offers in terms of interacting with students can be equally as fulfilling.

“One thing I didn’t think was that I would become the director of a Ph.D. program or that I would take on any administrative [roles],” Teng said. “In general, students are actually pretty fun … For the most part, it’s interesting to watch the progression of students going through the program.”

His passion for studying viruses began when he was first introduced to cancer research in graduate school. He studied the dynamic nature of the immune system, which ultimately led him to his current area of study, the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

RSV involves recurring infections that mainly affect small children within their first year of life, however, symptoms are typically mild. Teng began studying the virus in 1996 following his acceptance as a postdoctoral research fellow at the National Institute of Health and continued to do so as an Assistant Professor at Pennsylvania State University between 2002 and 2010.

The COVID-19 outbreak motivated Teng and fellow USF research faculty to investigate the effects of the virus on the respiratory system, where his prior research proved to be a guiding resource.

“Most recently, Mike has contributed substantially to educating and informing the public on SARS CoV-2, vaccines, antiviral therapies and safe public health measures. This takes time and effort to commit to such an endeavor, that is not easy,” Chair of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine Craig Cameron said.

Providing valuable information on the pandemic and its progression to the Tampa Bay community has been a difficult but enriching experience, according to Teng. The lessons he has learned from making public appearances have greatly shaped the manner in which he delivers medical information to his students, such as using concise terms and simplified explanations.

“He provides strong leadership and national visibility to the program … he has worked to establish a nationally competitive medical doctorate and Ph.D. program to support the rise of Morsani College of Medicine in the national rankings,” Senior Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Education Robert Deschenes said.

Increased Asian representation among science professors at universities is a trend Teng said has contributed to a more positive and inclusive work environment. In contrast to his childhood and experiences in secondary education, attempts to diversify STEM fields contemporarily have provided a platform for representation.

Work and education have allowed Teng to build personal connections with fellow scientists located around the country, which he said has been a necessity given the limited number of virologists located in the Tampa Bay area. Being able to understand the struggles of fellow virologists allows Teng to get inspiration from their research and work ethic regardless of the distance between himself and his peers.

Despite the rapidly advancing nature of STEM research, Teng said finding the solution to RSV will continue to remain his primary focus. After having spent close to 26 years working on the virus, he also hopes to better prioritize work-life balance in order to spend more time with his wife and daughter.

Unlike the prevalence his father’s work in physics had upon his career trajectory, Teng said his daughter will have the freedom to decide her own career path uninfluenced by her father’s love for science. Although he is proud of his successes in virological research, being a parent is something he said has been an opportunity unparalleled to anything else he has achieved.

“Being a parent completely changes you, and that’s so cliche to say, but it really does … [my daughter] wants to be an astronaut right now [and she’s] not really into science, which is fine,” he said. “Whatever she’s good at, that’s what I want her to do.”